Washington DC

Washington DC | The city of power

Washington, D.C., D.C. in full District of Columbia, city and capital of the United States of America. It is coextensive with the District of Columbia (the city is often referred to as simply D.C.) and is located on the northern shore of the Potomac River at the river’s navigation head—that is, the transshipment point between waterway and land transport. The state of Maryland borders the District of Columbia to the north, east, and west, and the state of Virginia borders the District on the southern shore of the Potomac River.

In 1790 the U.S. Congress established a 100-square-mile (260-square-km) territory to serve as the permanent seat of the federal government. (The territory was later named the District of Columbia, within which the city of Washington was built.) The location for the new territory was centralized among the Eastern Seaboard states and was about 90 miles (145 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean on land ceded by Maryland and Virginia. In the mid-19th century the land south of the Potomac River that had been ceded by Virginia was returned to the state, reducing the District to its present-day size.

After the American Civil War (1861–65), the city of Washington expanded beyond its originally planned boundaries and became legally indistinguishable from the District of Columbia. Washington, D.C., remains a territory, not a state, and since 1974 it has been governed by a locally elected mayor and city council over which Congress retains the power of veto. The Washington metropolitan area covers nearly 4,000 square miles (10,360 square km) and encompasses 10 counties, 5 in Maryland (Montgomery, Prince George’s, Frederick, Charles, and Calvert) and 5 in Virginia (Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Stafford, and Prince William). Area District, 68 square miles (176 square km). Pop. (2000) 572,059; Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metro Division, 3,727,565; Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metro Area, 4,796,183; (2010) 601,723; Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metro Division, 4,377,088; Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metro Area, 5,582,170.

Character of the city

Washington is an extraordinary city, one with multiple personalities: a working federal city, an international metropolis, a picturesque tourist destination, an unmatched treasury of the country’s history and artifacts, and a cosmopolitan centre that retains a neighbourly small-town ambience. The role Washington plays as the capital of the United States often overshadows its lively local history and its complex political, economic, and social issues. About half the land in Washington is owned by the U.S. government, which pays no taxes on it. Several hundred thousand people in the D.C. metropolitan area work for the federal government.

During the last half of the 20th century, “suburban flight” of the middle class contributed to the city’s loss of more than one-fourth of its population. As new jobs, especially those in the high-technology industries, were created in Maryland and Virginia, the population of the suburbs increased as much as 50 percent per decade. By the first decade of the 21st century, however, Washington’s population began to increase as younger workers moved into revitalized city neighbourhoods. Despite these shifts in population, the economies of the District and those of nearby Maryland and Virginia remain interdependent.


The city of Washington was built on a gently undulating, low, wide peninsula of land bounded by the Potomac River and its tributary, the Anacostia, in the belief that the location would develop into an important commercial port. (Potomac is an Algonquian word meaning “trading place,” and Anacostia is derived from the name of a local people, the Nacostines, who traded on that river.) Encircling the city are a series of terraces that in certain areas rise to about 400 feet (120 metres) above sea level, where Washington’s neighbourhoods were gradually built. Part of a shallow, long ravine—what is now Rock Creek Park—separated Washington from the old port city of Georgetown; development to the north and west of this ravine was slow until the end of the 19th century, when the ravine was bridged and public transportation was made available.


Washington has a temperate climate with high humidity levels. Precipitation throughout the year is evenly distributed, averaging between 3 and 4 inches (75 and 100 mm) per month. Winters are damp, and extremes in temperature and heavy snowfalls are not typical. The infrequent wet, light snow often melts quickly, as average winter daytime temperatures are in the mid-30s F (about 2 °C); however, freezing temperatures at night can quickly change the melted snow to ice. In the summer brief periods of high temperatures are common, often accompanied by dense humidity. The average summer daytime temperatures are in the mid-70s F (about 24 °C), but highs above 100 °F (about 39 °C) can occur. Spring and autumn are pleasantly mild and tend to be longer than summer and winter.

City layout

Washington’s visionary planner was Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French army engineer who fought in the American Revolution. Two factors strongly influenced L’Enfant’s imagination as he planned the capital city: his understanding of 18th-century Baroque landscape architecture and his familiarity with the city of Paris and the grounds of Versailles. L’Enfant adapted the city’s formal plan to the area’s natural topography, carefully selecting important sites for principal buildings on the basis of the order of their importance, beginning with the U.S. Capitol building, which he placed on a high ridge. He then symbolically linked it, by way of Pennsylvania Avenue, to the presidential palace (the White House), on a slightly lower ridge.

Placing the Capitol at the centre of the street plan, L’Enfant drew surveyors’ lines through the building to the points of the compass, thereby separating the city into four sections: Northwest (the largest quadrant), Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest. Three of the four surveyors’ lines became streets: North Capitol, East Capitol, and South Capitol streets. The fourth dividing line stretches west from the Capitol along the middle of the Mall to the Potomac River.

Washington’s streets are organized in a scheme of broad diagonal avenues overlain on a grid of wide north-south- and east-west-trending streets. Thus, an orderly web of wide tree-lined avenues creates great vistas and leads both to powerful focal points and open public spaces. The intersections of two or three diagonal avenues are punctuated with landscaped circles and squares, while their intersections with grid streets create triangular and trapezoidal lots and parks, resulting in interesting streetscapes.

Streets running north-south are numbered, and streets running east-west are lettered. There are two sets of numbered streets and two sets of lettered streets. One set of numbered streets commences to the east of the Capitol, and the other starts to the west. The two corresponding sets of lettered streets begin to the north and to the south of the Capitol. Each street’s name is followed by the abbreviation of the quadrant in which it is located (e.g., 1st Street NW or A Street SE). There are no J, X, Y, or Z streets, and the two B Streets were renamed Constitution Avenue and Independence Avenue. A number of diagonal avenues are named for U.S. states.

L’Enfant’s city plan was reconsidered in 1900 during the city’s centennial celebration (Congress first convened in Washington in 1800). The Senate Park Commission, headed by Sen. James McMillan of Michigan, enlisted the country’s foremost architects, artists, and landscape planners to review and refine L’Enfant’s plan for the 20th century. Ultimately, many new monuments, federal buildings, parks, and museums were created.

A new 100-year “Extending the Legacy” scheme was released in 1997 to protect the L’Enfant plan and restore those features of it that had been neglected. The scheme, prepared by the National Capital Planning Commission, aims to encourage local government, international organizations, and private developers to relocate to some of the city’s more neglected neighbourhoods, to stimulate the local economy, to revitalize Washington’s expansive waterfront properties, and to improve public transportation within the city and in the surrounding region.


Three factors have radically influenced the style of Washington’s architecture: restrictions on the height of structures, Classicism, and conservatism. Yet, in the mid-20th century, Modernism began to have a noticeable effect.

Height restrictions for buildings in Washington were enacted by Congress as early as 1899 because of concerns over the fire safety and aesthetics of tall buildings, and the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 assured the city’s horizontal landscape. According to the act, no building in Washington may be taller than 130 feet (40 metres), though along certain portions of Pennsylvania Avenue certain structures are allowed to extend an additional 30 feet (9 metres). Office buildings may be no wider than the street on which they are built plus 20 feet (6 metres), and most of them are about 120 feet (37 metres) wide. Thus, D.C. lacks the characteristic skyscrapers found in other large U.S. cities. Moreover, as the city has expanded, it has spread out rather than up, with residential and low-rise commercial areas having been replaced by rows of homogeneous boxlike office buildings.

Since 1800 the architecture and design of many of Washington’s buildings have been inspired by Classicism (a style known for rationality, beauty, order, and balance). Classical architecture in Washington has evolved through several stages, successively coming under the influence of 18th-century Georgian and Palladian styles; 19th-century Greek Revival and Second Empire styles; early 20th-century Art Deco-influenced Neoclassical style; mid-20th-century Modernism; and ultimately late 20th- and early 21st-century postmodernism.

The White House (18th-century Palladian style) and the Capitol (19th-century Greek Revival) are examples of some of the early Classical structures. The Capitol was designed by William Thornton in 1792. (Its two huge marble wings—one for the Senate and one for the House of Representatives—and Renaissance-style cast-iron dome were later additions.) The White House, designed by James Hoban (1792), was inspired by Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland, and is considered one of the world’s finest residences for a head of state. The 19th-century Treasury Department and the 20th-century Supreme Court buildings further reflect Washington’s tradition of Classical architecture. The Federal Triangle office buildings, built after World War I (1914–18) in response to the government’s need for additional office space, are examples of the more modern and Art Deco-influenced Neoclassical styles. They include the Department of Commerce, the Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Justice, the National Archives, and the Federal Trade Commission buildings. The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (dedicated in 1998 as a late addition to the Federal Triangle buildings) is modern inside with a soaring atrium, but it has a Classical exterior reflecting those of its older neighbours.

A tradition of conservatism also is evident in the architectural design of many of Washington’s private and government buildings. New architectural styles are rarely employed in Washington until years after the styles have become accepted in other areas of the country. Two exceptions to this rule were the usage of the Second Empire style of the1850s, particularly in the building that once held the Corcoran art collection (now called the Renwick Gallery), and the postmodern style of the early 1980s, seen in many commercial buildings on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle and on Pennsylvania Avenue in the east end of Georgetown.

Despite the city’s currents of Classicism and architectural conservatism, most of Washington’s early buildings were displaced by the structures of the Modernist movement of the 20th century, which encouraged an architectural style that was devoid of decoration. Few early 19th-century buildings remain in Downtown Washington, with the exception of three houses at 637–641 Indiana Avenue, in Northwest D.C., that were built in the 1820s. At the end of the 20th century, historic-preservation movements began successfully saving the facades of many other older structures, incorporating them within the framework of new commercial buildings, as in Red Lion Row on the 2000 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest D.C.

Housing in Washington reflects the changing needs and tastes of the various segments of the population. Residential areas of the mid-19th century are filled with block after block of attached row houses, varying only slightly in size, height, style, and building material. Later 19th-century neighbourhoods that developed beyond the original city boundaries offered larger lots, and many architecturally diverse single-family homes were designed for the upwardly mobile middle class. In the 1870s elegantly designed multiroom mansions were constructed of limestone or decorative brick with terra-cotta trim, most notably in the Dupont Circle and Kalorama neighbourhoods of Northwest D.C. Beginning in the 1930s, many of these mansions were converted into embassies, private clubs, and office buildings. During and immediately after World War I, and again after World War II (1939–45), apartment buildings were erected to accommodate the growing number of government workers. At the same time, grand apartment-hotels were popular with high-ranking government officials, military officers, and ambassadors. By the end of the 20th century, new mixed-use apartments, condominium complexes (residential buildings that include commercial space), and luxury hotels were built in some of Washington’s previously neglected neighbourhoods.

Monuments and memorials

Much of the attractiveness of Washington can be attributed to the hundreds of outdoor sculptures and monuments that adorn the parks, gardens, buildings, avenues, and cemeteries of the city. L’Enfant suggested the use of outdoor sculpture as a way to honour the new country’s heroes. The first outdoor sculpture situated in Washington was the Tripoli Memorial, commemorating the heroes of the Tripolitan War (1801–05). It stood first in the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington and was later moved to the Capitol grounds before being relocated to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

In the 1840s Congress commissioned the first statue of George Washington, a white marble Romanesque rendering of the first president. It was exhibited outside on the eastern front plaza of the Capitol for years before being placed in storage. In the 1960s the statue was given a permanent home in the National Museum of American History. An equestrian statue of Washington was also part of L’Enfant’s design for the city; it was to have been located at a crossing point west of the Capitol and south of the White House. In 1885, nearly 100 years after the plan was first promulgated, the Washington Monument, a 555-foot (169-metre) unadorned obelisk, much grander than the modest statue L’Enfant envisioned, was dedicated on the Mall, near the original site. Meanwhile, in 1860 an equestrian statue of George Washington had been placed in Washington Circle, northwest of the White House.

The Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, a chevron-shaped black granite wall north of the western end of the Reflecting Pool, lists more than 58,000 names of those who were killed or identified as missing during the Vietnam War. South of the western end of the Reflecting Pool is the Korean War Veterans Memorial, featuring 19 unpolished stainless-steel statues of soldiers. Their images are reflected in a black granite wall onto which have been etched images taken from more than 2,500 Korean War-era photographs. At the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool is the National World War II Memorial, an oval plaza with a large pool and fountains. It is bounded by two large pavilions, representing the Atlantic and the Pacific theatres of the war, and surrounded by 56 pillars (for each of the 48 states and the 8 territories that were part of the United States at the time of the war).
Andrew Jackson statue
Andrew Jackson statue

More equestrian statues have been erected in Washington than in any other city in the United States. The first of these, honouring Andrew Jackson, was erected in 1853 in Lafayette Square opposite the White House. The Jackson statue (cast from cannons captured during the War of 1812) was also the first bronze equestrian statue made in the United States, and it was so highly acclaimed that two replicas were cast and sent to New Orleans and Nashville. The statue’s designer, Clark Mills, immediately received a second commission from Congress, for the equestrian statue of George Washington that was dedicated at Washington Circle in 1860.

The four years of the American Civil War (1861–65) so profoundly affected the conscience of the country that more memorials in Washington are dedicated to it than to any other period in United States history. Nearly 40 works of outdoor sculpture honouring heroes of the Union (and one Confederate, Gen. Albert Pike, whose statue was erected in 1901 by Freemasons) dot the city, embellish buildings, and adorn parks and cemeteries. One prominent memorial dedicated in 1863, though it was planned years earlier, is the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol. The majority of Washington’s circles and squares were renamed for and display statues of Civil War heroes, including Adm. David Farragut and generals Ulysses S. Grant, Winfield Scott Hancock, John A. Logan, George B. McClellan, James B. McPherson, George G. Meade, John A. Rawlins, Winfield Scott, Philip H. Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George H. Thomas. A fountain was dedicated to Samuel Francis du Pont, a Union naval officer, when his statue was removed in the early 20th century. A frieze that consists of six Civil War scenes depicting seamen, infantry, cavalry, artillerymen, and members of the Medical and Quartermaster Corps decorates the exterior of the Old Pension Building (now the National Building Museum) in Downtown Washington. Other Civil War memorials include the Peace Monument to commemorate naval deaths, located in the circle to the west of the Capitol; a monument to the Nuns of the Battlefield near St. Matthew’s Catholic Church; and the African American Civil War Memorial, near the U Street subway station. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, two outdoor statues were quickly erected to honour the slain president. The first stands in front of the old City Hall in Downtown Washington, and the second, on Capitol Hill in Lincoln Park, was paid for by donations solely from former slaves. (The more familiar Lincoln Memorial was not dedicated until 1922.)

Rock Creek Cemetery has some remarkable sculpture, perhaps the most striking being the Adams Memorial (1886–91), with a shrouded bronze figure designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and commissioned by historian Henry Adams (the great-grandson of John Adams), in memory of his wife, Marian. Saint-Gaudens called the sculpture The Mystery of the Hereafter, but it is often mistakenly called “Grief.” The same cemetery contains the Kauffmann Memorial by William Ordway Partridge, entitled A Garland of Memories, and the Ffoulke Memorial by Gutzon Borglum, entitled Rabboni.

Several influential international figures have had statues erected in Washington in their honour, including English jurist Sir William Blackstone, British statesman Edmund Burke, Italian scholar Dante, Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, Irish patriot Robert Emmet, Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, German physician Samuel Hahnemann, French heroine Joan of Arc, Spanish queen Isabella I, German theologian Martin Luther, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, Polish general Kazimierz Pulaski, and Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Even the Aztec god of flowers, Xochipilli, is represented in the capital. A statue of a foreign hero of the American Revolution is placed at each corner of Lafayette Square, north of the White House: Tadeusz Kościuszko, the baron von Steuben, the comte de Rochambeau, and the marquis de Lafayette. Four Latin American independence leaders—Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, José Gervasio Artigas, and Benito Juárez—along with Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spaniard who played a key role in the American Revolution, are honoured with statues on Virginia Avenue in Northwest D.C., between the Organization of American States building and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Private citizens have also sponsored memorials to a range of other organizations, causes, and events, including the Boy Scout Memorial, the Founders Memorial, and the Temperance Memorial.

Neighbourhoods of Washington, D.C.
The District

Whether the capital city’s neighbourhoods have survived by design or luck, they all seem to have evolved somewhat haphazardly and not at all according to the plans of L’Enfant. Several factors have influenced the growth and development of Washington’s neighbourhoods since the latter half of the 20th century: the uninterrupted proliferation of federal buildings, the influx of immigrant populations, the expansion of public transportation, suburban flight, urban renewal, and, in the early 21st century, revived interest in city living.

When fair-housing laws were enacted in the 1950 and ’60s, many middle-class European Americans moved to the suburbs, while middle-class African Americans moved to areas formerly closed to them. Certain neighbourhoods, especially Capitol Hill and Brookland, were occupied by Blacks and whites who attempted to work together to build integrated communities. Other areas became largely homogeneous strongholds for certain groups—for example, wealthy European Americans in the upper Northwest, wealthy African Americans in the “Gold Coast” on upper 16th Street, and poorer African Americans in Anacostia.


The largest of the four quadrants of the District is Northwest, which contains most of the city’s federal buildings, tourist destinations, and wealthier neighbourhoods. It encompasses the areas known as Downtown, Lafayette Square, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and Adams-Morgan, among others.

The area referred to as Downtown Washington describes the business district located between the Capitol, the White House, and Georgetown. It includes Chinatown, the Metro Center, the Federal Triangle area, and the K Street office corridor.

Downtown Washington served as both a workplace and a residential area for a substantial population of Washingtonians throughout the 19th century, making it the most important section of the early city. Downtown residents included shopkeepers, office workers, labourers, craftspeople, politicians, lobbyists, and those who worked in the hospitality sector. The area also was home to many Chinese, Greek, Italian, German Jewish, and German Catholic immigrants. Center Market, the city’s main farmers’ market with hundreds of indoor stalls, was located on Pennsylvania Avenue near 7th Street until 1931. Many of the neighbourhood’s 19th-century buildings were uniform three-story brick structures, often with shops on the first floor and residences above. Boarding houses were common in Downtown Washington; one of the most famous was owned by Mary Surratt during the Civil War years. (Surratt was later tried, convicted, and hanged for her part in a conspiracy to abduct Pres. Abraham Lincoln, who was later assassinated by fellow conspirator John Wilkes Booth.) Her home still stands in what is now Chinatown; it is one of the area’s few pre-Civil War buildings.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, the popularity of Downtown Washington diminished, and many buildings deteriorated. The development of Washington’s suburbs, combined with the Downtown race riots that broke out in 1968, kept people away from the area, hampering its vitality for 30 years. In the early 21st century, however, much of Downtown was revitalized. The addition of a sports arena, hotels, restaurants, a major convention centre, and new museums attracted both new residents and visitors. Many historic properties have been restored; condominium buildings have been constructed; and older commercial buildings have been converted into luxury apartment buildings and hotels.

Lafayette Square

The Lafayette Square neighbourhood lies directly north of the White House on H Street between 15th and 17th streets. It was once a showplace of wealth and influence. Throughout the 19th century some of the most distinguished Washingtonians and important national and world leaders were entertained in Lafayette Square homes. The first home in the neighbourhood was Col. John Tayloe III’s Octagon House, built in 1800, which is now owned by the American Architectural Foundation. In 1816 St. John’s Church was built across the square facing the White House and became known as the “Church of the Presidents.” The neighbourhood was filled with elegant mansions owned by cabinet officials, foreign diplomats, vice presidents, socialites, philanthropists, and others, including former first lady Dolley Madison after her time in the White House, politicians Daniel Webster and Francis Preston Blair, and military commanders Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers. Historian Henry Adams once wrote, “Lafayette Square is society.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the character of the neighbourhood changed. Many homes just off the square were replaced with grand marble or granite Neoclassical or Second Empire-style bank and office buildings (the Treasury Annex, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the headquarters for the Organization of American States, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the American Red Cross). Private developers also bought several of the Lafayette Square homes, razed them, and built eight- and nine-story office buildings in their place. By 1962 the federal government had purchased all the Lafayette Square properties, with plans to replace them with government office buildings. At that time, however, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy brought attention to the importance of historic preservation and worked behind the scenes on a design to protect the neighbourhood’s remaining historic homes. Under the terms of a compromise agreement, new office structures were built behind, but connected to, the historic homes. Blair House remained in use as the president’s guesthouse and was connected to three adjoining homes; Decatur House was saved after being transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; and St. John’s Church has remained intact.

Foggy Bottom

West of Downtown, between the White House and Georgetown, is Foggy Bottom—roughly bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, by 17th Street to the east, by Constitution Avenue to the south, and by the Potomac and Rock Creek to the west. Its name derives from its origin as a neighbourhood of wharves, warehouses, brickyards, breweries, gas works, and an early 19th-century glassblowing factory: a combination of industrial smoke and humidity occasionally produced a blanket of fog. The first U.S. Naval Observatory was built on the western edge of Foggy Bottom, on the rocky abutment above the Potomac River, in 1844. During the Civil War, Union troops encamped in the area’s low-lying open fields. After the war, the creation of light industrial jobs in Foggy Bottom attracted many German immigrants, who settled into modest brick row houses. When the industries closed in the early 20th century, many residents moved out, and the area slowly transformed into a low-income neighbourhood with substandard housing, where the majority of the dwellings became rental properties.

Throughout the 20th century, George Washington University invested in the inexpensive Foggy Bottom real estate and eventually became the principal landowner. Row houses were replaced by modern buildings that were used for classrooms, dormitories, and administrative functions. One by one, whole blocks of the old neighbourhood disappeared.

In the 1930s several magnificent buildings were erected on the southern edge of Foggy Bottom, most notably the Department of the Interior, the Federal Reserve Board, and the National Academy of Science buildings. During World War II the War Department relocated to Foggy Bottom, and after the war the State Department took over that site.

The neighbourhood again became a popular place to live after the opening of the enormous Watergate office and condominium complex in the late 1960s and of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a few years later. (Watergate was the site of the break-in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 that led to the Watergate Scandal, which eventually resulted in the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.) A few blocks of historic and quaint 19th-century row houses remain, standing bravely in the shadow of many mid-rise, high-density hotels, apartments, and offices, as well as George Washington University Hospital.


Georgetown, the oldest neighbourhood in the District of Columbia, was originally a trading village called Tohoga by the local Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. By 1751 this area on the Potomac River was well established as a colonial tobacco port and named for King George II of England. Forty years later the port town was included in the parcel of land transferred by Maryland to become part of the District of Columbia. In 1789 Georgetown University was established as the first Roman Catholic academic institution in the country. Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the 19th century brought new jobs to the old port city. Mills, foundries, and lime kilns began to line Georgetown’s waterfront. Its population was ethnically and economically diverse and consisted mainly of merchants, labourers, and government employees.

Maintaining its own elected government, economy, and identity, Georgetown remained independent of Washington until 1871, when it was absorbed into the expanding city. For a time, newspapers referred to the port as West Washington, but ultimately the old name prevailed. By the end of the 19th century, however, Georgetown was no longer considered a fashionable place to live. Only a few wealthy residents remained in their dignified old mansions, which stood next to brick and wooden row houses occupied by lower- and middle-class labourers.

In the 1930s educated, idealistic, high-ranking New Deal government workers rediscovered the charm of Georgetown and started the renewal of the neighbourhood through the preservation and restoration of its older homes. Less-affluent residents sold their homes at attractive prices, starting an upward spiral of artificially high real-estate prices that have come to be expected in present-day Georgetown. In 1951 Congress designated most of Georgetown a historic district, and, by the end of the 20th century, several historic Georgetown homes had been opened to the public, including the Old Stone House, Tudor Place, Dumbarton House, and Dumbarton Oaks Estate and gardens. In the early 21st century, Georgetown residents included a mix of university students, government and private sector workers, and upper-middle-class families. The neighbourhood has a variety of unique shops, restaurants, and nightclubs.

Dupont Circle

The Dupont Circle neighbourhood is situated northeast of Georgetown and surrounds Dupont Circle, a park centred at the intersection of five streets: Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts avenues and 19th and P streets. The area had been a neglected marshland until after the Civil War, when it was drained and graded for development. With the advent of the Gilded Age, a materialistic period during the 1870s, wealthy businessmen and investors began to shun the formerly stylish neighbourhoods of Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Lafayette Square in favour of creating an opulent new community of fashionable addresses. During this time a few grand mansions, including an ornate Second Empire-style structure that served as the British minister’s residence and diplomatic headquarters, were erected near Dupont Circle, greatly increasing the prestige of the neighbourhood. (The British moved to a new embassy building in 1931, and this grand structure was razed and replaced with a Modernist office building for the International Association of Machinists.) Large homes and row houses filled in the blocks near the grand mansions. Wealthier Americans and businesspeople with political connections began to spend winters in the neighbourhood, which increased its popularity and bolstered Washington’s reputation at home and abroad as a sophisticated, significant city. This image began to change, however, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when residents were forced to sell their Dupont Circle homes, many of which were converted into boarding houses, offices, private clubs, and embassies; other homes eventually were torn down and replaced with mid-rise apartment, commercial, and office buildings.

By the 1960s Dupont Circle not only had lost its air of exclusivity but also had become a haven for students, hippies, and anti-Vietnam War protesters. In 1978 part of the neighbourhood was designated a historic district, and real-estate prices escalated. Notable mansions were preserved; row houses were renovated; and shops, bookstores, and restaurants opened, creating one of the liveliest, most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in the city.

Adams-Morgan and beyond

Adams-Morgan, situated just north and west of Dupont Circle, is one of Washington’s most ethnically and economically diverse communities, having originally served as a wealthy enclave for prominent Washington scientists and high-ranking government and military personnel. Once known as Lanier Heights, the neighbourhood gained the name Adams-Morgan after the area’s two segregated public elementary schools—Adams, a white school, and Morgan, a Black school—were voluntarily integrated in the 1950s.

The extension of streetcar service to what is now Adams-Morgan in 1891 encouraged the construction of luxury apartment buildings, which dramatically increased the area’s population. The need for housing for military personnel stationed in Washington during World Wars I and II had transformed large townhouses and grand apartments into low-priced rooming houses, which in the 1950s and 1960s were rented to a large Hispanic population and other newly arrived immigrants. During the last two decades of the 20th century, the conversion of apartments into condominiums and cooperatives, the renovation of old row houses, and increasing gentrification added greatly to the diversity of the neighbourhood, whose motto is “Unity in diversity.” Its restaurants, music venues, and unique shops have made Adams-Morgan one of D.C.’s most popular and eclectic neighbourhoods.

North and west of Adams-Morgan are some of the District’s wealthier neighbourhoods. These include Kalorama, where the Woodrow Wilson House, the Textile Museum, and many ambassadorial residences are located; Cleveland Park and Woodley Park, which surround the Washington National Cathedral; Mt. Pleasant, Tenleytown, and Chevy Chase, which developed as streetcar suburbs; and American University Park, where American University and several ambassadorial residences are located.

East of Adams-Morgan are the Shaw and U Street neighbourhoods, once known as “Black Broadway” and where Duke Ellington grew up and first played jazz. Farther east, LeDroit Park is the home of Howard University. LeDroit Park developed as a wealthy all-white enclave enclosed by a fence that was torn down by African American university students in 1888 in protest of segregation. The area became the centre of Washington’s African American elite by the turn of the 20th century. The race riots of 1968 devastated the area, but the beginning of the 21st century brought a complete renewal. Sometimes called “The New U,” the area saw its old commercial buildings converted into loft apartments and condominiums. Jazz clubs were revived, the Lincoln Theatre (1921) was restored, and the African American Civil War Memorial (The Spirit of Freedom) was dedicated in 1997. The African American Civil War Museum (1999) is located two blocks from the memorial.


The Northeast section of Washington features residential neighbourhoods that were established in the 19th century. Brookland, named after the estate of Col. Jehiel Brooks that formerly occupied the site, was developed between 1887 and 1901. Located in Brookland are the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (dedicated in 1959), the Franciscan Monastery (dedicated in 1899), and the Catholic University of America (founded in 1887). The neighbourhood of Deanwood was established in Northeast in 1888 as a semirural, self-sufficient, racially mixed community. By the mid-20th century it had become a predominately African American neighbourhood.

The area just northeast of the Capitol was once known as Swampoodle for its swampy conditions, a result of flooding. It was home to mainly working-class Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Famine (1845–49). The name Swampoodle disappeared after 1965, and in the 1980s the area became known as NoMa (“North of Massachusetts Avenue”). Old row houses were demolished, a railroad trestle was removed, and two streets that were originally part of L’Enfant’s street plan were rebuilt. Union Station (1907), the city’s magnificent train depot located on the southern edge of NoMa, was renovated, revitalized, and reopened during this time. In 1993 the old Post Office building (1914), which abuts Union Station on the west, became the home of the National Postal Museum. NoMa experienced further development in the early 21st century: condominium buildings were erected, a subway station was opened, and the headquarters of some federal agencies were relocated there as well.


The Southeast quadrant of Washington is dominated by Capitol Hill. The Anacostia neighbourhood is also located in this section of the city.

Capitol Hill

The Capitol Hill neighbourhood, in Southeast D.C., is the oldest residential community in the original city of Washington. In 1805 several boarding houses and taverns were erected near the Capitol to cater to members of Congress. Low-rise row houses, interspersed with shops and businesses, quickly filled nearby lots and replaced old farms. Eastern Market, completed in 1873, is a farmers’ market located about seven blocks from the Capitol. Having begun operations in 1802, the market has always been the heart of the neighbourhood. The South Hall of the market was destroyed in a fire in April 2007, and restoration efforts began the following year.

From 1880 to 1980, whole blocks of low-rise row houses, churches, and businesses were razed in the vicinity of the Capitol. They were replaced by three Library of Congress buildings (1897, 1939, and 1982), the Supreme Court (1935), and six congressional office buildings (1908–82). Several brick townhouses on East Capitol Street were razed in the early 1930s to build the Folger Shakespeare Library. Named for the benefactor Henry Clay Folger, the library is a marble Art Deco building that is decorated with relief panels depicting scenes from plays of William Shakespeare.

The Washington Navy Yard, established in 1799 on the Anacostia River, was an important force in the development of the southeastern section of Capitol Hill. Its purpose was the defense of the capital and the construction of warships, and it served as the principal employer in Washington for 150 years, providing job opportunities mainly to skilled African Americans and European immigrants. Many of these early labourers, who walked to work at the yard, built their own small, two-story brick and wooden row houses nearby. In the 20th century, the Navy Yard became one of the world’s largest centres for ordnance production and engineering research.

The post-Civil War period brought an influx of middle-class government workers to Capitol Hill, and with them came developers who built row after row of two- and three-story attached brick homes. By the 1920s these residences, along with a great number of churches, had nearly filled the Capitol Hill neighbourhood. Within a few decades, the neighbourhood was densely settled within a five-block area northeast and southeast of the Capitol. The community remained stable until World War II, when many of the row houses were converted into rooming houses and rental properties. The area’s population swelled with workers during the war, but in the 1950s, flight to the suburbs by both the African American and European American middle class caused many of the Capitol Hill homes to be converted into boarding houses for displaced low-income residents, most of whom were African American. Public housing facilities were built in certain sections of the neighbourhood as well. By the end of the decade, the area was called “blighted and obsolete” by the media and members of Congress.

Nonetheless, the Capitol Hill houses had charm, and they were gradually gentrified—slowly displacing many lower-income residents in the process. Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century, young families and single professionals invested in the properties closer to the Capitol and supported the construction of modern townhome projects (some designed for lower-income residents) that replaced much of the public housing. The present-day population of Capitol Hill is a mix of senators and representatives, government workers, professionals, labourers, artists, journalists, and students.


Anacostia, which lies southeast of the Anacostia River, is a mostly lower-income neighbourhood with a predominantly African American population. Part of the area was first subdivided and developed in 1854, and the 11th Street Bridge across the Anacostia River was built in 1874 to connect the neighbourhood to Capitol Hill. (A bridge expansion project was begun in the early 21st century.) After the Civil War it was home mostly to former slaves, but it had become an ethnically and economically mixed neighbourhood by the end of the 19th century. Housing for workers in war-related industries was established in the area during World War II. Most European American families left the neighbourhood either after school desegregation in the late 1950s or during the race riots in 1968, and they have not returned.

The Frederick Douglass (a former Anacostia resident) National Historic Site and the Anacostia Community Museum are located in the neighbourhood. The Anacostia waterfront across from the Navy Yard (which lies on the northwestern side of the river) has undergone residential and commercial development in the early 21st century, especially with the establishment of the Washington Nationals baseball stadium there in 2008.


Southwest Washington, like Foggy Bottom, was planned as a prosperous commercial and residential waterfront neighbourhood. L’Enfant had included a military defense site in his original plan, and in 1791 a military reservation was established near the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. An army arsenal was built there in 1794 (today it is called Fort Lesley J. McNair). It is one of the oldest forts in the country; it has served as the headquarters of the U.S. Army Washington Military District since 1966 and has been the main campus of National Defense University since 1977.

Before the Civil War, Washington’s Black residents, both free and slave, coexisted in Southwest’s large Black community. The Southwest 6th Street wharf was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves escape to the North. After the Civil War, thousands of newly free Blacks, along with newly arrived European immigrants, settled in Southwest, where hundreds of small row houses were built. Tiny alley dwellings filled the interiors of the blocks, creating hidden impoverished alley communities. In the 1880s German and eastern European Jewish immigrants established tailor shops, bakeries, butcher shops, groceries, and dry-goods stores in Southwest. One famous Southwest resident was the entertainer Al Jolson, whose father was a cantor and rabbi.

In the early 1900s many blocks of Southwest homes were replaced with the huge federal buildings of the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Warehouses and freight yards lined the waterfront, and railroad tracks crisscrossed the area. By the 1930s, the quadrant had become predominately African American, poor, and crime-ridden. In 1946 Congress chartered the Redevelopment Land Agency, which targeted the Southwest neighbourhood. In 1954 several thousand buildings were razed, and low-income residents were displaced and relocated, many to Anacostia. An increasing number of new government departments and agencies created a demand for new office space, resulting in the construction of clusters of modern, homogeneous buildings in gray concrete or pink granite, or with white marble facades, which hide any trace of the former neighbourhood. In complete disregard of L’Enfant’s street plan, modern apartment buildings and townhouses also filled the new superblocks. Some public housing was added as well. Amenities in Southwest include the waterfront, which boasts a lively seafood market and a marina filled with small yachts and houseboats, several restaurants, and the Arena Stage theatre. Yet, despite Southwest’s waterfront location, its neighbourhood remains stark and quiet.

Arlington county, Virginia, was a part of the District of Columbia until 1846. In the 19th century Arlington consisted of mostly farmland that was devastated during the Civil War. Recovery took more than 30 years. George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, had owned a 1,100-acre (450-hectare) plantation in the county that was seized by the U.S. government during the Civil War; it was converted into a military stronghold and later into a cemetery (now Arlington National Cemetery).

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Arlington’s small farms were rapidly replaced with communities of modest homes and garden apartment complexes built for the influx of government workers during the two world wars. The county quickly became a popular bedroom community for Washington because of its proximity to the city centre. The present-day population of the county is ethnically and economically diverse.

The Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima), located near Arlington National Cemetery, is considered to be the largest cast bronze statuary group in the world; it was inspired by a famous World War II photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal of six men (five Marines and a navy hospital corpsman) raising an American flag on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima. The U.S. Air Force Memorial, dedicated in 2006, rises above the cemetery, with three skyward-reaching, stainless-steel curved spires reminiscent of the Air Force Thunderbird Jet contrails. The Pentagon, also located near the cemetery, was constructed during World War II to consolidate the military branches and to provide offices for the joint chiefs of staff and the secretary of defense.

Old Town Alexandria, just south of Arlington county, was the rival port to Georgetown during the 18th century. From 1791 to 1846 Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia, but because the port city was neglected and its development arrested during the first half of the 19th century, residents requested that Congress return the land to Virginia. During the Civil War, Alexandria was a city with Confederate sympathies, but it was occupied by federal troops. For the 100 years following the Civil War, the city’s economy continued to decline, and its warehouses, wharves, and townhouses deteriorated. The historic value of Old Town was finally recognized as a result of the celebration of the country’s bicentennial in 1976. The 18th-century Gadsby’s hotel and tavern were restored as a museum, as was the Carlyle House (built in 1752) and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary (opened in 1792). Alexandria already enjoyed a convenient location on the Potomac River, near Washington and the Pentagon, and after subway stations were opened in Alexandria in 1983, the area became more accessible, and shops, restaurants, and local festivals also attracted new residents and visitors. New townhouse construction, along with the restoration of blocks of tiny 19th-century row houses, added to the upward-spiraling values of the real estate in the quaint seaport city.

In nearby Fairfax county, Virginia, the city of Fairfax boasts many historic properties and a city museum, as well as George Mason University’s Center for the Arts and the Fairfax Symphony. McLean is a wealthy community that is also home to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm at Turkey Run. Sully Historic Site (1794), the home of Richard Bland Lee, northern Virginia’s first congressman and an uncle of Gen. Robert E. Lee, is located in the city of Chantilly, near Dulles Airport. Also near the airport is the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Great Falls Park, on the Potomac River, offers a dramatic view of the cascades and rapids of the river, as well as a history lesson about the 18th- and 19th-century local canals. Several historic homes are located in Fairfax county, including George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon; Martha Washington’s granddaughter’s home, Woodlawn Plantation; and George Mason’s home, Gunston Hall.


In nearby Montgomery county, Maryland, Bethesda–Chevy Chase is a growing metropolis of shops, high-rise office buildings, restaurants, and expensive homes and condominiums. Strathmore is an arts and exhibition complex in North Bethesda. The unincorporated city of Silver Spring is a far-reaching northern suburb of Washington that is ethnically and economically diverse. Takoma Park is a city of Victorian-style homes, charming shops, and annual street festivals that boast of a tight-knit community. Located in Prince George’s county is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland.

Parks and open spaces

Washington is richly endowed with parks. The largest is Rock Creek Park, encompassing nearly 1,800 acres (730 hectares) in Northwest D.C. Congress purchased this land in 1890 to safeguard it from development. Remnants of quartzite and soapstone quarries once used by Native Americans can be found there. The National Zoological Park occupies about 160 acres (65 hectares) of Rock Creek Park. Among the zoo’s main attractions are the panda bears, on long-term loan from China.

Potomac Park, along the east bank of the Potomac, was created by Congress in 1897, when more than 700 acres (280 hectares) of reclaimed river flatland and tidal reservoirs were set aside for recreation as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control project, which created sluicing ponds, tidal reservoirs, and parkland. In the 20th century, many improvements were made to the park, including the addition of cherry trees (several thousand of which were a gift from the people of Japan in 1912), polo grounds, athletic fields, military parade grounds, and several memorials—the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.

The National Arboretum, which encompasses 446 acres (180 hectares) of rolling hills in Northeast D.C., was established by Congress in 1927 for environmental research. It has one of the largest collections of azaleas in the country, as well as a collection of bonsai plants ranging in age from 50 to 400 years old. Twenty-two sandstone Corinthian columns that were removed during the 1958 renovation of the east portico of the Capitol now stand on a small hill on the arboretum grounds.

Theodore Roosevelt Island is a 91-acre (37-hectare) wildlife preserve that was dedicated in 1967 to U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt. The park offers a dramatic illustration of the wilderness, marshland, woodland, and rocky shore reminiscent of Washington’s landscape about 1800.

Other parks of interest in Washington include Meridian Hill Park, 1 mile (1.6 km) north of the White House; Montrose Park in Georgetown, once part of the Dumbarton Oaks Estate; Glover-Archibald Park in Northwest; the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast; and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Northeast, with more than 100,000 water plants, including rare water lilies and lotuses.

People of Washington, D.C.

Washington has always been an ethnically diverse city. In 1800 one community consisted of mostly affluent descendants of Europeans; they held various religious beliefs and political views but generally shared an optimism in the potential for self-government and a desire to participate in it. Another early community was made up of labourers—some educated or skilled, others uneducated or unskilled—who physically built the country’s capital; most of these labourers were free Blacks, slaves, and immigrants. Because Washington boasted no major industries, these early immigrants were mainly skilled workers and entrepreneurs from Scotland and Ireland. By the mid- to late 19th century, additional immigrants from Germany, Italy, eastern Europe, Greece, and China had established ethnic enclaves within Washington.

Prior to the American Civil War, Washington’s Black population was part free and part slave. In 1800 about one-third of the population was Black, about one-fifth of which was free. By 1860 more than four-fifths of the Black population was free. The city’s African American population more than doubled between the start of the Civil War (1861) and the end of Reconstruction (1877), when tens of thousands of freed Blacks poured into the city. By 1900 Washington had the largest African American urban population in the United States, and a number of prominent Black leaders and educators lived there. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, large numbers of rural poor African Americans moved from the South to settle in Washington. By the 1970s nearly three-fourths of the capital city’s population was African American. Although this proportion shrank over the next few decades, African Americans continued to constitute the majority of D.C.’s population into the early 2000s.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Washington remains a somewhat racially and economically divided city. The majority of European Americans live in Northwest D.C., while Southeast D.C. chiefly consists of a poor African American population. More than half of the city’s inhabitants are African American, about two-fifths are of European descent, and the remainder are mainly of Hispanic or Asian origin. In contrast to the city’s demographic breakdown, in the surrounding metropolitan area European Americans constitute nearly two-thirds of the population, African Americans make up less than one-fourth, and the remainder of the population is of multiethnic heritage. The immigrant population in the city and suburbs includes some of the country’s largest Ethiopian, Central American, and Korean communities.

Throughout the 20th century, population growth in Washington was cyclical, increasing during wartime and economic downturns as people arrived in search of jobs or assistance from the federal government. During the last decades of the 20th century, the size of the District’s population stabilized while the suburbs experienced unprecedented growth. At the beginning of the 21st century, the city’s population was young, with the average age in the mid-30s. Moreover, nearly one-fifth of the city’s residents were between ages 25 and 34.


As a result of Washington’s abundance of federal civil service jobs and its status as a major tourist destination, the city’s economy is overwhelmingly dominated by the service sector. Research and development work is another key component of the local economy. Most businesses are linked in some way to the federal government. Thousands of area residents work as lobbyists, seeking favourable legislation for the interests they represent. (Although the term lobbyist used in this context probably dates from the early 19th century, it is a popularly held notion that it was coined by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who applied the name to the favour seekers who sought him out in the lobby of the Willard Hotel [now the Willard InterContinental Washington], where he was known to relax after a long day.)

Although Washington is not known as a manufacturing centre, a number of useful natural resources found in the immediate region are processed and used locally. Sandstone and granite quarries are prevalent in nearby Maryland and Virginia, and many buildings in Washington have been constructed of these stones, including the Capitol and the White House. Similarly, clays and soils from the Potomac Valley area have been used to make terra-cotta and bricks, the most commonly used building materials in the area. Perhaps most surprisingly, gold has been mined at several locations within 10 miles (16 km) of the city.

Finance and other services

Washington has been a banking centre since the arrival of Congress and the establishment of a branch office of the Bank of the United States, which survived until 1836. The city’s “financial district” is defined as the area immediately around the Treasury Department, where many private banks are still located. The area has been designated a historic district to preserve the Victorian and Second Empire–style banking houses that were erected there at the turn of the 20th century. Several major government banking institutions are headquartered in Washington, including the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, under the Department of Treasury, has its main printing facility in Washington. Major international financial institutions in Washington include the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Transportation of Washington, D.C.

Washington developed as a river port city at a time when ships were the principal means of transportation. The Potomac River empties into Chesapeake Bay, which flows to the Atlantic Ocean; this allowed oceangoing vessels to sail into the ports of Alexandria and Georgetown. To take advantage of the upper river above the Great Falls of the Potomac, George Washington started the Potomac Canal Company in the 1780s to circumnavigate the river’s falls, rapids, and shallows. In 1828 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal bought the rights to the old Potomac Canal and extended it from Georgetown westward to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal was operational until 1924. In 1938 it was purchased by the federal government, with the prospect of draining, paving, and converting it into a parkway. In 1954 Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas strongly supported a proposal to convert the canal into a public park, and with his help the canal and its towpath became a recreational area in the 1960s. In 1971 the area was designated a national park.

Railroads came to Washington in 1835. Horse-drawn streetcars were first used between Georgetown and the Navy Yard in 1860. By the 1880s electric streetcar lines had been laid throughout the city and into the outlying new “streetcar suburbs” of Maryland (Chevy Chase, Garret Park, Forest Glen, Glen Echo, and Tacoma Park). The streetcars remained in use until 1962, when buses replaced them on the cross-city routes.

The main highway in the region is the Capital Beltway, a 64-mile (103-km) interstate roadway encircling Washington and running through Maryland and Virginia. It is one of the country’s best-known highways and made famous the phrase “Inside the Beltway,” which refers, physically, to the city of Washington and its nearest suburbs and, metaphorically, to the political culture of the capital. The Beltway and other highways, parkways, and toll roads were built to help alleviate traffic congestion but have not been able to keep up with the area’s rapid population growth. The Potomac River bridges that connect Washington and Virginia have proved to be largely inadequate in number and capacity, though this situation has been relieved somewhat by the six-lane Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Alexandria, Virginia, to Prince George’s county, Maryland (completed in 2008 and replacing an earlier bridge of the same name). Moreover, the Anacostia River bridges are not sufficient to handle the amount of traffic between Downtown Washington and Southeast Washington and Maryland.

Public transportation combines a network of buses, both city and regional, with a rail transit system (the Metro) that opened its first stations in 1976. The Metro system is maintained by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Metro trains run on more than 100 miles (160 km) of track, above and below ground, and connect the nearby suburbs of Maryland and Virginia to Washington. The railroad network in and out of Washington links the city to other major cities throughout the United States as well as to the neighbouring bedroom communities for commuters. Washington’s historic Union Station, built in 1907 and renovated in 1987, is the primary arrival and departure point for all passengers on commuter, express, and long-distance trains.

Three major airports serve Washington. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport lies about 4 miles (6.4 km) south of the city in Arlington, Virginia. Dulles International Airport is 26 miles (42 km) west of the city in Loudoun county, Virginia. Both Virginia airports were acquired in 1987 by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Washington, near Baltimore.

Administration and society Government of Washington, D.C.

Washington’s governmental structure has slowly evolved into a limited form of self-government under the control of Congress. The city government is unique because Article I of the Constitution of the United States of America empowers Congress to exercise exclusive legislative authority over the seat of government. Congress granted Washington its first city government in 1802, providing for a mayor (to be appointed by the president) and for a 12-member council (to be elected by Washington’s taxpaying white male residents). Ten years later, Congress amended the city charter to provide for an eight-member board of aldermen and a 12-member common council who together elected a mayor. In 1820 Congress again amended the city charter to allow qualified residents—male property owners—to elect a mayor. In 1846 the city of Alexandria and Alexandria county (later renamed Arlington county) were returned to Virginia. Two years later, Congress added a board of assessors, a surveyor, a collector, and a registrar to the number of elected officials in Washington.

In 1871 Congress created a territorial government comprising a governor, an 11-member council appointed by the president, and a popularly elected 22-member House of Delegates. Washington was also allotted a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Georgetown, the City of Washington, and the County of Washington were combined under the new jurisdiction and the territorial government of the District of Columbia. This form of government lasted only three years, however, and was undermined by accusations of corruption and a series of financial crises. Congress abolished this system and instead appointed temporary commissioners and a subordinate military engineer. Congress then approved the Organic Act of 1878, which established a permanent form of government in which the District of Columbia was a municipal corporation governed by three civilian commissioners, one being from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Little changed for nearly 100 years. Local officials, however, continued to be appointed, and all legislation affecting the District of Columbia had to be passed by Congress after being initiated by the House District of Columbia Committee and the Senate Government Affairs Committee. The process was slow and was often criticized because members of the committees were not permanent residents of the District of Columbia. Prior to 1961, when the Twenty-third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowed the District to choose electors for president and vice president, residents of the District of Columbia had been denied the right to vote in presidential elections.

Throughout the 1960s the struggle for home rule was a pivotal issue. In 1967 Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson abolished the three-member Board of Commissioners and provided for a mayor-commissioner form of government and an appointed nine-member council. Seven years later, Pres. Richard M. Nixon approved limited home rule for the District of Columbia, allowing for the popular election of a mayor and a city council to four-year terms. Under the resulting system, the council is empowered to set tax rates, formulate the budget, and organize or abolish any agency of the District’s government. Congress, however, retains the right to veto any actions by the District government that threaten “federal interest,” and the budgets that are passed by the council and approved by the mayor have to be reviewed and enacted by Congress. In February 2009 the Senate approved a bill that would give a D.C. representative of the House full voting privileges, but it failed to pass when it became tied to the removal of the city’s strict gun-control laws.

The notion to create D.C. as the 51st state was a popular idea in the 1990s, and it is still supported by some residents who object to being taxed by the federal government while lacking proper representation in Congress. Statehood would give the District the power to levy its own taxes (e.g., a commuter tax) and to remove restrictions on development (e.g., height restrictions), but it also would mean the loss of the annual federal payment (totaling hundreds of millions of dollars) made to the city. In any case, Congress lacks the authority to grant statehood without a constitutional amendment ratified by 36 states.

In 1974 District voters approved a referendum to the District charter to establish Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), and the first elections of the commissioners were held two years later. The ANCs, representing more than 100 neighbourhoods in eight wards, are made up of residents who advise and present recommendations on policies affecting their neighbourhood.

The two federal and three local courts in Washington shared legal jurisdiction over District matters until the 1970s, when the courts were reorganized. The Superior Court of the District of Columbia, a single trial court, assumed the functions of the previous five courts. Similarly, a single U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was created, giving Washington an integrated court system.

Municipal services

The city’s law enforcement is handled by several agencies, each with its own jurisdiction. The Metropolitan Police Department enforces the laws and ordinances of the municipal government. The Capitol Police Force provides security for the Capitol and its grounds, and White House Security protects the president and the White House and its grounds.

A presidentially appointed Public Service Commission oversees the city’s public utilities. The Zoning Commission consists of the mayor, chairman of the city council, Architect of the Capitol, and director of the National Park Service. The water-supply distribution is controlled by the mayor but is under the jurisdiction of the District engineer. Washington’s public parks are supervised by the National Park Service.


The public school system in Washington radically changed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) in 1954 that declared racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. Instead of reducing prejudice and discrimination, however, the decision increased fear among residents and led to the suburban flight of many middle-class European American families from Washington. Many of the European American families who remained in the city enrolled their children in private schools, which led to a serious ethnic imbalance in the District’s schools. Initially, integrated schools did improve the morale for African American students, along with improving their opportunities for a better education. In the last part of the 20th century, however, poorly run D.C. schools also led to the flight of many middle-class African American families to nearby Prince George’s county, Maryland.

Despite the problems, many Washington schools were notable for their success. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public high school that opened in 1974, requires applicants to demonstrate their artistic abilities before they can be considered for acceptance. Other magnet high schools, which require students to apply for selective admission, have proved to be successful in motivating students to continue their education past high school. In the early 21st century the city launched further efforts to improve the public school system.

Seven institutions of higher education are located in Washington, with many more in Maryland and Virginia. Georgetown University, founded in 1789 as a seminary, is the oldest of the city’s academic institutions. The George Washington University, which was founded in 1821 as Columbian College, has a city campus that offers a diversified curriculum. The Catholic University of America was opened in 1889 and made Washington a centre for Catholic education; however, it accepts students of all faiths. Howard University was chartered in 1867 as an institution for higher education for African Americans and remains one of the country’s most highly regarded historically Black universities. American University was established in 1893 as a Methodist college. Gallaudet University was founded in 1857 to provide education to the hearing impaired; and the University of the District of Columbia was created by a merger of several local colleges.

Many private and federally funded institutions in Washington provide research facilities in politics, economics, and science. Some of the best known are the Brookings Institution, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, which is jointly administered with the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

Cultural life

Washington is a city that offers a never-ending wealth of cultural opportunities. Scores of museums, galleries, and theatres are located in the city, many of which are internationally recognized. More money is spent per capita by the local government on the performing arts in D.C. than anywhere else in the United States. Cultural heritage festivals are held throughout the year. More than 750 libraries are located in the Washington area, including the Library of Congress, which contains the largest international collection of research materials in the world.

The arts

At the centre of Washington’s literary history are books written about national issues, the conduct of politics and government, and Washington society that have been written both by authors with D.C. roots and by authors whose tenure in the capital has been more limited. Initially published anonymously, Democracy (1886) is considered by some to be the quintessential Washington novel; its author, Henry Adams, lived for many years in Lafayette Square. Margaret Leech won a Pulitzer Prize for her Reveille in Washington, 1860–1865 (1941), about life in Washington during the Civil War. Other well-known novels set in the capital are D.C. native Gore Vidal’s Washington, D.C. (1967), Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), and Primary Colors (1996), originally published anonymously but later attributed to political writer Joe Klein. Another Washington native, George Pelecanos, has used the city as the backdrop for his crime novels, and William Peter Blatty, who studied in Washington, used Georgetown as the setting for The Exorcist (1971). Nonfiction books about Washington include David Brinkley’s Washington Goes to War (1988) and Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men (1974).


Washington’s contributions to the world of music have been significant, beginning with the compositions of bandleader John Philip Sousa, who grew up in Washington and led the U.S. Marine Band (1880–92). As noted earlier, Duke Ellington first made his mark musically in his native Washington. The city’s contributions to jazz history go beyond those of Ellington and the jazz-club scene that thrived on U Street to include singer and pianist Shirley Horn, pianists Billy Taylor and Chicago-born Ramsey Lewis, saxophonist Frank Weiss, singer Pearl Bailey, and many others. Moreover, rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown, originally from Virginia, was performing in a D.C. club when she was signed by Atlantic Records (known as “The House That Ruth Built”). Similarly, singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris was discovered in a Washington club, as was Roberta Flack; Harris, like Washingtonian Marvin Gaye, relocated before attaining fame.

More grounded in the milieu of Washington itself was go-go, a style of funk that originated in the city in the late 1970s. Pioneered by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers and heavy on bass and percussion, go-go by the early 1980s had become the most popular music of D.C. dance halls (called go-gos). Washington also played a vital role in the development of hardcore (locally rendered as “harDCore”) punk in the 1980s and ’90s, most notably through the contributions of Ian McKaye, first as a member of Minor Threat and later as the driving force behind both the band Fugazi and Dishcord Records. Still another D.C. native who began his career in Washington but established himself elsewhere was Henry Rollins, vocalist for the seminal hardcore punk band Black Flag and a performance poet.

Cultural institutions

Washington has a plethora of museums; 10 Smithsonian museums border the Mall alone. These are the National Museum of Natural History (1910), the Freer Gallery of Art (1923), the National Gallery of Art (1941 and 1978; housed in two buildings), the National Museum of American History (1964), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974), the National Air and Space Museum (1976), the National Museum of African Art (1979; moved to the Mall location in 1987), the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1987), the National Museum of the American Indian (2004). and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016). Just off the Mall are the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, and the American Art Museum.

Among Washington’s other noted private museums and galleries are the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, the Kreeger Museum, the National Building Museum, the Textile Museum, the Phillips Collection, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Private home museums include Decatur House, Dumbarton House, Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Octagon House, Tudor Place, and the Woodrow Wilson House. There are several unconventional museums as well, including the International Spy Museum, the Newseum (a museum of news), and the National Museum of Crime & Punishment.


An appreciation of drama runs deep in Washington. Washington’s first legitimate theatre opened in 1800 in Blodgett’s Hotel, under the name the United States Theater. Four years later, the Washington Theater opened, followed by the National Theater in 1835, which is still in operation and boasts of having staged more performances than any other theatre in the country.

Ford’s Athenaeum (later named Ford’s Theatre) opened in 1862 and is now both a theatre and a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. In 1866, the year after Lincoln was shot while attending a performance at the theatre, Congress acquired and converted the theatre building for office use. Thirty years later, Congress purchased Peterson House, the boarding house across from the theatre in which Lincoln died. In 1932 a federally owned museum was opened in the theatre, displaying the Osborn H. Oldroyd collection of Lincoln memorabilia. In 1968 the restored theatre offered its first performance since April 14, 1865, the date of Lincoln’s assassination; it has continued to host musicals and plays.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1971, though the idea of a civic centre in the city dated back to the 1930s. The Kennedy Center is privately administered and is under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. It supports three large theatres, three smaller theatres, the American Film Institute, and shops and restaurants. In 1929 a 4,000-seat auditorium, Constitution Hall, opened in the building that houses the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Washington also has many smaller theatre venues, including the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, the Lincoln Theatre, the Warner Theatre, the Studio Theatre, and the Gala Hispanic Theatre.

The Washington Military District in Southeast offers free military band concerts on summer weekday evenings. The Sylvan Stage, on the Mall, and the Carter Barron Amphitheater offer free summer evening performances. Local churches, museums, libraries, memorials, and art galleries offer free noontime and evening concerts and recitals year-round.

Wolf Trap Farm Park in suburban Virginia is a national park dedicated to the performing arts where professional theatre, jazz, opera, and dance performances are offered during the summer. The Merriweather Post Pavilion, located in suburban Maryland, is an outdoor theatre.

Sports and recreation

Baseball is the national pastime, and it has been traditional for the president to initiate the Washington season by “throwing out the first pitch” since William Howard Taft did so in 1910 (other presidents had been asked, but Taft, a sports fan, was the first to accept and follow through). Major League Baseball’s presence in the city, however, has been somewhat sporadic. The Washington Senators, who began playing in the city in 1901, featured Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson but more often than not struggled (meriting the famous summation “Washington—first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”), notwithstanding a World Series championship in 1924. In 1961 the franchise relocated to Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins, but the next incarnation of the Senators began to play as an expansion team, again in the American League. After the 1971 season, that franchise too left Washington, becoming the Texas Rangers. The capital was then without a team until 2005, when the Montreal Expos of the National League relocated to Washington as the Nationals. In 2008 the Washington Nationals baseball stadium opened in Southeast D.C.

The football Washington Commanders (formerly Washington Redskins) of the National Football League (NFL), on the other hand, have been a constant presence in the city since 1937. With a history that includes groundbreaking quarterback Sammy Baugh, two NFL championships, and three Super Bowl championships, the Commanders have a deeply dedicated fan base. Area fans of collegiate football turn their attention to the University of Maryland in suburban College Park. Washington also has a professional hockey team, the Capitals, of the National Hockey League, and a Major League Soccer team, D.C. United. Howard and American universities, as well as the University of Maryland, have also had notable men’s football (soccer) teams.

Basketball has an especially rich history in Washington that dates from the first decade of the 20th century, when Edwin Henderson, an African American physical educator who had learned the game while attending Harvard University, introduced the game to Black Washingtonians. The long list of great players who competed for area high schools only begins with Earl Lloyd, Elgin Baylor, Austin Carr, Dave Bing, Kermit Washington, and Kevin Durant. Another local schoolboy star, John Thompson, gained even greater prominence as coach by establishing the Georgetown University men’s team in the 1980s as one of college basketball’s perennial powers. The University of Maryland and George Washington University also have enjoyed success in men’s basketball. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has been represented in the Washington area since 1973, when the Baltimore Bullets moved to Landover, Maryland, becoming first the Capital Bullets, then the Washington Bullets, and finally (in 1997, just before the team moved into its new arena in Downtown Washington), the Washington Wizards. Since 1998 the Washington Mystics have competed in the Women’s National Basketball Association.

Washington’s climate allows for outdoor recreation nearly year-round. Favourite activities for Washingtonians include jogging, bicycling, and in-line skating. Sailing, kayaking, and canoeing are popular on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Baseball fields and volleyball courts in Potomac Park and other public areas are popular for after-work and weekend games.
Media and publishing

Washington is a major international information and communications centre. In the 1930s Pres. Franklin Roosevelt began the practice of using the mass media for political purposes with his weekly radio addresses (later known as “fireside chats”). The Washington Post is the city’s major daily newspaper, and its competitor is The Washington Times. The Hill covers Congress, Roll Call reports on Capitol Hill, and Politico covers U.S. and international politics. Several neighbourhoods have their own publications, including The Georgetowner, The Northwest Current, and The Hill Rag. Journalists from around the world work at the National Press Building in Downtown D.C.

History of Washington, D.C.

Washington was established as the capital of the United States as the result of a compromise following seven years of negotiation by members of the U.S. Congress as they tried to define the concept of a “federal enclave.” On July 17, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which created a permanent seat for the federal government. George Washington, the country’s first president (1789–97), carefully chose the site, which is on the Potomac River’s navigation head (to accommodate oceangoing ships), and near two well-established colonial port cities, George Town (now Georgetown, a section of the city of Washington) and Alexandria, Va. This location bridged the Northern and Southern states, but Washington called it “the gateway to the interior” because he hoped it would also serve to economically bind the Western territories to the Eastern Seaboard—the Tidewater and the Piedmont regions—and thereby secure the allegiance of the frontier to the new country.

The new federal territory was named District of Columbia to honour explorer Christopher Columbus, and the new federal city was named for George Washington. In 1790 French-born American engineer and designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant was chosen to plan the new capital city; meanwhile, surveyor Andrew Ellicott surveyed the 100-square-mile (260-square-km) territory with the assistance of Benjamin Banneker, a self-educated free Black man. The territory surveyed by Ellicott was ceded by Maryland, a slave state, and Virginia, the Southern state with the largest slave population, thus contributing to a significant Black presence in Washington.

Construction of the Capitol building, the presidential palace (now the White House), and several other government buildings was almost complete when Congress moved from Philadelphia to Washington in December 1800. There were, however, few finished dwellings and even fewer amenities in Washington at the time, making the first several years rather unpleasant for the new residents. In 1812 the United States declared war against Great Britain (see War of 1812), and two years later the British invaded the vulnerable capital city, setting fire to federal buildings. Structural damage was extensive, and the morale of the local citizens sank. By 1817, however, a newly reconstructed White House welcomed Pres. James Monroe (served 1817–25), and Congress reconvened in the newly built Capitol in 1819, after having spent five years in the temporary Old Brick Capitol Building, which had been erected on the site of the present-day Supreme Court Building.

Growth and change

Between 1830 and 1865 tremendous changes occurred in Washington, beginning with the arrival of Pres. Andrew Jackson (served 1829–37), who brought with him a retinue of new civil servants—beneficiaries of the “spoils system” who introduced democratizing social changes to the workplace and the community. Challenges were plentiful: the local economy was unstable; silt in the Potomac River restricted navigation; the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was delayed; and epidemics were common. When railroads reached the city in the 1830s, a flood of tourists came with them, as did a proliferation of congressional spouses, who forever changed Washington’s social scene.

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